Jason Kerrison

Kia ora, Jason. You’re a well-known New Zealand figure through your music, especially because of your band, Opshop – and a number of lovely songs you’ve written. But you’ve been a radio jock too. And then there’s been your work on television as a perceptive and kind-hearted judge of young musical talent. That’s probably promoted you to celebrity status. If so, you wouldn’t be the first celebrity to emerge from Invercargill. But I assume that your high profile owes a fair bit to the musical genes you inherited from your mum and dad. Is it true that you grew up in a musical family?

Yeah, there was a bit of music in my background. I had a grandmother who was very musical. I have memories too of my mother playing on the old piano. And one of the things I liked – even revered – about going to church on Sundays was the singing. Full lungs. It was beautiful.

But the biggest influence was my dad, Francis Kerrison, who was a freezing worker (an oyster shucker too) – a jazz muso and a drummer. It’s through him that I have Ngāpuhi whakapapa. Actually we should’ve been carrying the name Netana or Nathan but, for various reasons, we took on the Kerrison moniker.

On my mum’s side, we’re Pākehā. She was Judith Moir, a nurse. And she was from a farming family in Winton. Her whanau was a mixture of Irish, German and Scandinvian. Bit of English too. And the story is that they met at a dance.

But, when I was growing up, my dad had his drum-kit set up – and, as a kid, naturally you wanna go and have a bit of a smash on it. So I’d do that. But it was his working instrument. So I didn’t get to play on it that often. It was a very regulated kind of inter-action.

As a matter of fact, when I was young, I wasn’t really that interested in music. It was just one of those things that were around. My dad did try to teach me how to drum, but I didn’t really get it – and he gave up on those lessons.

Meanwhile, I understand that your family moved up to Christchurch.

Yes, we did. And, because of the Catholicism on my mother’s side, that meant Catholic schools for us kids. I have two sisters and a half-brother. So I went to St Theresa’s and then St Bede’s College – and it was there that I started flirting with the idea of becoming a musician.

And the Catholic faith has continued to be important in your life?

No. Not at all. I’m close to being an atheist. I don’t accept the dogmatic, orthodox version of what God is. And I don’t believe in the indoctrination process. I’m more inclined towards the spirit – and towards meditation. And just being in stillness.

Back to your music now. Tell us about your first guitar. Are you predominantly a guitarist?

I’ve gotta be honest. I’ve gotta fess up here – I’m not good at anything with an instrument. Somehow, for the last 20 years, I’ve managed to feign professionalism. And I think that’s largely because I was gifted with a decent voice. So I can only really thank mum and dad and the rest of my genealogy for that.

Last year, when Opshop decided to disband, and I took on a solo challenge, I realised that without having those guys around me – as they’d been for the previous 10 years – just how much I’d relied on them as a crutch. And just how skilled those guys were.

I mean, I knew that anyway, but to be playing on your own and having no-one to hide behind, made me realise just how much I needed to go and learn my instrument better. So last year was primarily a year where I was re-learning, and re-familiarising myself with the guitar.

I used to say I was a songwriter primarily, and I’d like to think that was the case. But these days I’m trying to expand my role. Playing a bit more guitar. And also finding myself in a music producer role  –  which is fantastic. As a producer, you’re facilitating the process. So that’s exciting. And satisfying.

Alongside of your song-writing, performing and producing, you’ve been a broadcaster too. How did that fall into place?

Like you, I did some broadcasting training in Christchurch. There’d been broadcast training available at the Christchurch Polytech, and that became the New Zealand Broadcasting School. Then they provided a degree programme.

I’d applied for that degree course since I was 14 and I think they just got sick of me applying. But, when I made it on to the course when I was 19, it was a fantastic experience. There I met people that I’m friends with for life. For instance, 20 years on I’m still mates with Mike Puru.

Then, when we were job-hunting, we produced these skite tapes and sent them out to radio stations around the country, hoping to get an internship. I wanted to work for a progressive Maori youth radio station. I thought I’d shoot for the top. At that time, Mai FM was the biggest rating station in the metropolitan area – and I landed a job there. Mike got a job at a station that is now The Edge.

Later I focused on my music for a bit. I also spent a couple of years at Auckland University studying Ethnomusicology in the Anthropology department. I really enjoyed that discourse. Then I was pulled into radio to help set up Kiwi FM. And that was a great, great experience. It was really gratifying being able to help build something from the ground up.

It’s a pity that’s now dissolved, on that frequency. Mediaworks have turned it into something else. But that’s radio. We live in the most dense radio spectrum in the world. So there are always going to be moves and changes. I’ve done a fair bit of TV too, and I still do, but, at the moment, I’m more inclined to move along with the music industry and see where that goes.

Now, your song-writing – and your background in bands. Tell us about your early days in that world.

One of my first bands was in Christchurch. At that stage, I didn’t consider myself a musician, or a singer. Actually I wanted to play bass. But, way back as a little whippersnapper, I’d started out on violin. That, I think, is where I initially got my sense of music – apart from perhaps the two or three piano lessons my grandmother got for me when I was a 10-year-old kid in Invercargill.

The school orchestra had needed a violinist so that’s where I came in. Then I found myself in a school band and we started jamming. And that’s where the creativity came from. Then, at a different school, in another band, they needed a singer. So I had to give up the bass. And I didn’t really feel like I had anything to say as a songwriter.

There were other songwriters in the band and I’d just learn the lyrics and sing the part. I was kind of divorced from the idea that songs could mean something to the singer until we started writing our own stuff. And then I got to feel a sense of obligation to my own integrity.

Naturally, I’d had to go and play covers to earn a living and pay the rent, while we were developing the skills to become songwriters. But that’s where it started. And then, there I was arriving in Auckland for my broadcasting work, and there were all these threads coming together.

Soon I was in a backpackers bar in Lorne Street and that was really where I cut my teeth. Sitting there in this smoke-filled, dungy, cool little bar for three or four hours, just trying to get through a night’s worth of entertainment. I actually knew more cover songs then than I do now. These days I have to struggle and dig deep to try and remember those songs from back then.

I’ve spent much of the last 13 years or so, attempting to write my own music. And that’s something you never feel you’ve mastered. You can sit there confronted by a blank piece of paper – and it can be like the first time you ever tried to write. Caught in a whirlwind of anxiety. But then you just start, and you go through the process.

What songs have given you the most satisfaction?

They’re all satisfying at the time. Emotionally, some of them address a problem right then and there. As songwriters, we’re really fortunate to be able to do that and have that outlet. But, it happens to be a professional vocation too, so that the song you create is able to go out and work for you as well.

When you get that return on the time you’ve put into it, and when it helps look after you and your finances, you can’t help but be grateful. Certain songs, like One Day, which took about 10 minutes to write, continue to help me out financially anyway. So they all come with their own merits for sure.

Receiving New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM,) for services to music.

Receiving New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music.

One Day is a lovely waiata. It’s become something of a New Zealand anthem – something you can be proud of. And I imagine you can also feel proud of the New Zealand Order of Merit which you were awarded four years ago.

Yeah, well, I don’t know much about that system. To be honest, I’m not comfortable about the way those awards and honours reinforce the sense of privilege and social strata in New Zealand. And another of my responses was that I’m just a musician in a band, writing music, trying to get by – and trying to make a difference. The Band Together concert for Canterbury concert is my proudest moment in that regard. Providing maybe 160,000 people with a distraction from the destruction, if only for a day. Hagley Park. Magic. I’m told it was for that.

But there was no need for an award. I didn’t feel worthy of being singled out. The truth is that Mum and Dad, and others in the family, were really proud. So I felt obligated to take it – and to do so graciously.

Another role you’ve had is as a judge of musical talent on two different television programmes. I’ve had a taste of judging karaoke contests so, on a small scale, I know how difficult it is to critique these contestants who are looking for their big break. But you’ve handled those situations impressively. You haven’t opted for the abrasive style of Simon Cowell.

A mentor once gave me this advice: “Always look after anyone under 16, no matter what. Tell them everything’s great – and that they just have to improve on it. But above that age, they have to be able to take on some criticism as well.”

His theory was that you should give contestants something to improve on, but also something to take away and feel proud about. But you want to leave them all on a high. These contestants have walked on the stage and, sometimes, for them, this really is their moment. You have to treat them with the utmost respect and compassion.

I’ve been in similar situations. I’ve felt the nerves and I’ve felt the pressure. And so I think, for us, it was really an opportunity to nurture them through the process and give them some good, critical feedback when it was necessary.

Māori have a reputation for being great entertainers, whether that’s kapa haka or showbands or pop singers. But the music industry can give you a false sense of who you are – and can make it hard to keep your feet on the ground. But that doesn’t seem to have affected you.

It’s quite easy to get lost in the maelstrom that is the music industry, when you sometimes have a lot of “yes people” around you – and when it’s difficult to rely on a good honest critique. But I’ve just tried to keep my own integrity. And I don’t like to make a big deal of it.

As a people, we like to express ourselves, and we happen to be built for singing and for dancing. I think we’re just really good at expressing it. And we’ve got a long lineage of doing that. So I’d encourage anyone who likes the idea of performing to just go with it. It doesn’t mean that has to be your only thing. It’s probably good to specialise in something. But you can diversify as well. Have a go at picking up the guitar or singing with the kapa haka. Or something else where you can express yourself. Don’t let the moment pass. It would be a shame to waste it.

You’ve just come back from a gig or two in England. There’s been a trip to Japan as well. So you’re clearly in some demand now that you’re flying solo.

I went over to England as part of an All Blacks tours trip for the Rugby World Cup. And I played with the London International Gospel Choir at New Zealand House in London a few Mondays ago. Lockwood Smith, the New Zealand High Commissioner was there and he got up and sang a rugby song. Did a bloody good job actually. I was really impressed. And Ali Williams, an ex-All Black, was having a jam there as well. A whole bunch of other boys too. It was great catching up with them.

I had other work and meetings there too, including lending a hand with the official charity song backed by the All Blacks. And in Japan I’ve been working on a project to do with bringing buskers together from all around the world to form a global street band. That could become an annual event. The performing arts can be a really diverse thing and I find myself enjoying it, perhaps more than I ever have.


© E-Tangata, 2015

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